Geoff Metcalfe has experienced sights not often seen by westerners, travelling to the remote ‘lost and forbidden kingdom’ of Mustang in Nepal …
Hi Geoff. Tell us about yourself.
They say you’re not a local until living in Port Macquarie for 20 years or so. I have been living here for 30 years since leaving Sydney, so I guess I am now! I’m married to Jenny, whom I met in Port Macquarie and have 3 daughters, who have all inherited a love for travel.
I am presently a civil engineer and have had a passion for travelling all my life. I had the opportunity in my early years while I was at school to travel to many parts of Australia and New Zealand through my involvement with the Scouting movement. My first big overseas trip was to Europe in the late ‘70s. Like many Aussies at the time, I spent a few months touring Europe and North Africa.
Travelling has been a part of my life ever since, both for work and family holidays. I also enjoy arranging trips for family and friends and have developed a good network of contacts both locally and overseas. So much so, I decided to start my own travel business called DREAMTREKS, based around trekking and walking tours.
How did your trip to the lost and forbidden kingdom of Mustang come about?
I first went to Nepal in 1999 on a commercial trek that was led by a local Nepali Sherpa guide, Ang (pronounced Ung). From that trip on, the people, the culture and the magnificent scenery have made Nepal a powerful attraction to me. Ang has become a very close friend and like part of the family. The trip to Mustang was my 4th time to Nepal. I had heard and read about the Mustang region since this first visit.
Well known explorers like David Snellgrove and the Italian scholar Guiseppi Tucci visited Mustang in the ‘50s, and it’s been largely their tales of a Tibet-like arid region and other tales of the lost paradise of Shangri-la that fuelled my interest in the area.
This forbidding place is on the far side of the Great Himalaya and is caught up in a medieval time warp, ruled by a king whose lineage can be traced back to the 15th century. Mustang until recently was a kingdom within a kingdom. That was the catalyst to think about a journey one day to this long forbidden place and maybe get to meet this ruler before the end of his time. Nepal was going through political crisis from 1996 to 2009, and there were fears that Mustang would be ruled from Kathmandu.
I decided it was time for DREAMTREKS to launch its inaugural trip to Nepal and to the Kingdom of Mustang. In 2010 I escorted 10 locals from Port Macquarie to Nepal, where my good friend Ang guided us, aided by a couple of sherpas and a mule herder with his half a dozen mules to carry our gear.
Where exactly is this lost and forbidden kingdom located?
Mustang is a remote Himalayan Principality in the rain shadow of the Himalayas on the border of Nepal and Tibet.
It forms part of the Tibetan plateau and borders with Tibet at the far northern end of Kali Gandaki, the deepest gorge in the world. Lying behind Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massif, it is a barren and dry region with deep ravines and rock shelves flanked by snowy peaks. One of the most fascinating features of Mustang is its thousands of cave dwellings, some of which look completely inaccessible.
It is a miniature Tibet, having more in common culturally and geographically than with the rest of Nepal. It was once the important trade route to Tibet and India and the passage to Mt. Kailash used for centuries. It was also the backyard of the Khampas, the Tibetan warriors.
The area covers 2,000 square kilometres, with a population of approximately 15,000. Upper Mustang was settled by people of Tibetan origin calling it ‘The Land of Lo’ and still referring to themselves as Lobas. The capital is Lo Mantang, where the King (Lo Gyalpo) lives. The legendary castle city with its 300 m long red battlement is at 3,770m above sea level and surrounded by barren mountains.
This city contains the richest surviving collection of 15th century Buddhist Mandalas in the world. The ethnic people are Lobas, Thakalis and Gurung, and tough winter conditions force some of these villagers to migrate south towards India for the winter to sell produce.
We flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara then onto Jomsom, the administrative centre of the region. It is a spectacular flight to Jomsom, with the Twin Otter hurtling us through a narrow gap formed by the world’s deepest gorge (Kali Gandaki at 19,700 feet deep), hemmed in by two of the Himalaya’s highest snow mountains, Nilgiri (7,061 m) and Dhaulagiri (8,163 m).
From Jomsom it is a half day walk to Kagbeni (2,840 m), a green oasis at the junction of the Jhong Khola and the Kali Gandaki. At Kagbeni there is a Police check post saying ‘Restricted Area’. The town looks like it has been locked in a medieval time capsule, with closely packed mud houses, dark tunnels and alleys, imposing chortens (stone Buddhist monuments) and ochre coloured gompas (Tibetan Buddhist temples).
This is the gateway to Mustang, requiring a special Mustang pass.
Our special permit ($100/day/person) to this hidden kingdom restricted us to 10 days, where we traversed 14 passes of about 4,000m altitude. The highest pass was Chogo La at 4,325m. Mustang’s altitude is between 2,800m to 6,700m (Khamjung Himal).
The villages, with their white washed settlements set amid barley fields and home to chortens and monasteries, reflected the Buddhist culture. Their religion is more strictly a system of philosophy and a code of morality.
What kind of research about the area did you do prior to your departure – and did the area/people meet your expectations? The novel Lost Horizon writes about discovering, in the 10th century, Shangri La, a magnificent richly fertile valley where the climate was temperate all year and the inhabitants were happy and peaceful, living incredibly long and happy lives. It is rumoured that this area could be this legendary Shambala or Shangri-la.
Apart from this novel and the film Shambala, I have read many books and articles of Mustang and have watched documentaries on BBC and National Geographic.
China invaded Tibet in 1950, banning many of the ancient Tibetan ways and destroying much of their unique culture, so Mustang is a living museum.
The mystique of this place of Tibetan warriors fighting the Chinese on behalf of the Dalai Lama and a King that allowed no one from the outside world in, made it an ever more intriguing place on earth that I would love to see.
This isolated and free kingdom far exceeded my expectations with its beauty. The people we met were warm and welcoming and wanted for nothing.
What is some of the history of this particular location – why is so rare for people to visit the kingdom of Mustang?
Mustang is a ‘Kingdom’ within a Kingdom, technically attached to Nepal but closely tied by language and culture to Tibet. The 15th century was a time when most of the larger monasteries were founded, and its strategic location between the Himalayas and India granted Mustang control over this now famous trade route. At the end of the 18th century (1789), the kingdom was annexed by Nepal.
Westerners were banned from entering this Kingdom until 1992, and today are restricted in numbers still by the Nepalese Government to about 2,000 per year for only 10 days duration. We were fortunate enough to obtain the required permits but at a premium cost of $100 /day / person for each of the granted 10 days.
The monarchy officially ended on October 7, 2008 by order of the Nepalese Government but is still recognised by many Mustang residents.
I mentioned earlier about the Tibetan Warriors. They were called ‘khampas’. Near the village of Samar, 3,350m above sea level, is an area called ‘Soldier Hill’, where according to some locals they apparently had their war camp (magar).The Khampa were known for their ferocity and shielded the Dalai Lama as he fled to India in 1959.There are believed to have been more than 6,000 Khampa based in Mustang, from where they ambushed Chinese troops after slipping across the border. The USA funded the Khampas training on US soil for a while, however, strong pressure from China resulted in the abandonment of the Khampa following Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing.
What things about the culture and location struck you as the most memorable – and why did these particular things stick in your mind?
In Mustang, fertile land is scarce. The people are farmers and are very poor. However, it was evident that the western world with its materialistic way of life is probably far less content than these people we met. They also probably experience a far greater inner peace than many westerners.
A few things stuck in my mind.
One of the most memorable days was when we hired the services of a pony herder and spent the day horse riding north of Lo Mantang towards the Tibetan border. We rode to the village of Ghom, where we explored caves high up in the cliffs which dated back about 2,000 – 3000 years. We visited the monastery nearby, which was 6th century. Our permit did not allow us in this area overnight, so we had to backtrack to Lo Mantang.
We trekked past many distinctive black, red and white chortens (stone Buddhist monuments) that typify upper Mustang. In lower Mustang, the towns of white washed houses are surrounded by fields of wheat, barley and buckwheat, interspersed with small apple orchards. We camped one night in one of these apple orchards, and they were the best apples I have ever tasted. We saw the decoration of the houses, which shows the influence of Tibetan culture − of which Lo is evident.
There were many stream crossings on the trek, where we fossicked for fossilised rocks. These rocks, once cracked, revealed shell fish − evidence that this land was once a sea.
We also had an incident where a local came to our camp with a tooth abscess. Ang informed me that he had tried all of the traditional doctors (amchis) in the area, and we were the last resort – asking if we had western medicine in our kit. Ang gave him some penicillin we had. I am led to believe Mustang has no western doctors and the amchis practise traditional medicine dating back more than 2,000 years.
You had the opportunity to meet a remarkable person while you were in Nepal. How did this experience affect you?
Meeting the last official and current ‘king’ (called raja or gyelpo) in Lo Mantang was like reaching the ‘Holy Grail’. As I mentioned earlier, my dream was to visit Mustang and maybe meet the ’king’. My good friend Ang, among his many traits, one is being able to deliver. He managed to organise a private audience for us with the ‘king’, which absolutely thrilled us.
The ‘king’ is Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista. He is 78 years of age and traces his lineage directly back to Ame Pal (25th direct descendant), the Tibetan warrior who founded this Buddhist kingdom in 1380. He is an active horseman and keeps a stable of the best horses in Lo.
The raja’s palace is an imposing four storey building in the centre of Lo Mantang. We were led through a labryrinth of dark hallways and ancient wooden stairs before being greeted in his official ‘suite’. He greeted us on an elevated bench covered with red carpet with the traditional clasping of hands in the prayer pose and words ‘namaste’ (traditional greeting).
As tradition dictated, we all presented the king with a yellow silk scarf (called a karta).This is expected by a Buddhist Lama.
On the walls hung paintings of the Buddha, Dalai Llama and many butter candles in silver bowls threw a glow across the room. He couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak his language, but we managed to correspond with Q and A through an interpreter for about half an hour or so over afternoon tea. This was, without a doubt, the highlight of the journey. The royal blood line finishes here. After our allotted time, he was happy to pose for a photograph, but it was imperative that we were not to be seen as higher than the king. We all had to crouch for the photograph.
What difficulties did you experience while you were in Nepal?
We didn’t experience any real difficulties, however, you need to be very mindful of the altitude we were trekking. Altitude sickness can strike anyone over about 2,500 m and needs to be taken seriously. Our flight from Pokhara took us from 820 m above sea level to Jomsom at 2,710 m in a matter of 20 minutes, where we felt the effects of this sudden rise in altitude. Symptoms of altitude sickness can be headache, loss of appetite, exhaustion, nausea. Fortunately, some of the group only suffered some minor effects.
All internal land content arrangements for the trek were looked after by my local contact Ang. As he is local, there were no language barriers. Accommodation was camping out each night, with 3 meals a day catered for in Tea Houses along the way. This was a great way to meet the real locals. The weather averaged low twenties during the day, but the mercury did drop below zero on a couple of nights.
Would you describe this trip to the kingdom of Mustang as a life changing experience?
The trek to Mustang is, without a doubt, an unforgettable experience. It is a land where you can find your inner peace and forget all the worries the western world tends to bombard us with daily. It lived up to and exceeded all expectations.
The more I travel to this land, the further I want to explore and experience. I have had so much positive feedback, that I will journey back there with another Dreamtreks group.
A quote from Lonely Planet aptly sums it up.
“Mustang, previously the most inaccessible and firmly controlled area in Nepal, is now one of the most interesting and picturesque places in Nepal.”
What’s next for you travel-wise?
My next trip is back to Nepal in November on a Dreamtreks 25-day tour to Gokyo Lakes and Base Camp at the foot of Mt Everest. This will be my 5th trek to Nepal. My other favourite destination is the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
Interview by Jo Atkins.